EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Under a cloudless blue sky and across pristine white sand beaches, the 22d Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) landed in Northwest Florida for the second portion of its Expeditionary Strike Group Exercise (ESGEX) December 12, after weeks and planning and coordination on the part of the MEU, Navy, and local and state officials in Florida.
For twelve hours Dec. 12, and throughout the next morning, a seemingless endless stream of landing craft deposited Marines and their equipment onto two primary landing sites in Florida's Okaloosa and Walton Counties.
The most complicated part of the landing was in Okaloosa County, on the outskirts of the city of Fort Walton Beach, where assault amphibian vehicles from Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, the MEU's ground combat element, and Landing Craft Air Cushioned (LCAC) crossed the barrier island of Santa Rosa, sped across an inner coastal waterway and landed on Wynnhaven Beach.
1st Lt. Landon L. Howe, from Martinez, Calif., commands the Landing Force Support Party from MEU Service Support Group 22, the 22d MEU's combat service support element, and he and his Marines facilitated the movement ashore.
"The landing's going very well," said Howe, watching yet another LCAC plow through the clear water and onto Wynnhaven Beach. "We haven't had any real problems and everything's going to plan."
The AAVs were the first to land that morning, and LCACs later dropped off Humvees, seven-ton trucks, M1A1 main battle tanks, M9 combat earthmovers, and M88A1 recovery vehicles. Once staged on the beach and ready for transit, the Okaloosa Sheriff's Office blocked traffic on U.S. Highway 98 and the vehicles sprinted across. Highway 98 was blocked three times throughout the day for less than six minutes each time, creating only very minor traffic delays.
During each crossing, Howe's Marines, assisted by the military police detachment from MSSG-22, draped pieces of carpet across Highway 98.
"The carpet's being used to avoid damaging the road from sand and tracks," said Howe, "and the whole process will be repeated for the backload."
Further east, LCACs bearing Golf Battery, BLT 1/6's artillery battery, passed under the Mid-Bay Bridge and entered Choctwhatchee Bay with their loads, traveling nearly 17 miles to drop off the battery at Hammock Bay. Again, traffic delays across Highway 20 were kept to a minimum by the Marines' speedy transit across the roadway.
Overhead, aircraft from the MEU's aviation combat element, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), were a constant presence ferrying Marines and equipment ashore. Once aboard Eglin Air Force Base, the site of the 22d MEU's training, the unit immediately kicked off four days of intensive live fire and maneuver exercises, close air support and surface fire missions, and command and control scenarios.
Col. Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., commanding officer of the 22d MEU, reminded his 2,200 Marines and Sailors of the importance of the training aboard Eglin in a video message distributed throughout the MEU in the days prior to commencement of training.
"The training itself will be vital for us as we deploy sometime after the first of the year into harm's way," said McKenzie, who assumed command of the MEU in October 2002. "This is a tremendous training opportunity and we're off to a good start. The lessons we learn at Eglin are going to carry us over into SOCEX [Special Operations Capable Exercise] and out into the theater of operations."
"Months from now, our lives are going to depend on the lessons we've learned and our ability to execute," he continued. "The training we're going to do in the next few days are going to be critical to making sure as many of us come back as go out [on deployment]."
The 22d MEU's arrival in Northwest Florida and its subsequent sustained ground training aboard Eglin AFB is a first both for the Marine Corps and the base, which has historically served as a weapons testing and evaluation site.
Following its training aboard Eglin AFB, the 22d MEU will retrograde to the amphibious assault ships WASP, WHIDBEY ISLAND, and SHREVEPORT and return to Camp Lejeune. The unit's SOCEX is scheduled for January and is the final hurdle before the MEU's upcoming deployment.
For more information on the mission, organization, and status of the 22d MEU, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.